The Context Group Essentials

I’m often asked for the best work of the Context Group. It’s one thing to read the theory presented in Malina’s New Testament World, Hanson & Oakman’s Palestine in the Time of Jesus, and Pilch’s Cultural Dictionary of the Bible, but where do we see all of this business in action? Where’s the real payoff in applying honor-shame models to the bible? This list is my answer. If you read everything on it, then you’re well empowered to understand the bible on its own terms.

1. Sex, Wives, and Warriors, Philip Esler. As the only Old Testament work featured on this list, it’s fitting that it hold pride of place. It was Jesus’ bible, after all, and offers an even sharper lens onto the honor-shame world than the New Testament, by the sheer abundance of stories with rural settings. The beauty to Esler’s approach is that he writes for all readers of the bible — scholars, laypeople, believers, infidels, filmmakers — with an eye towards artistic instinct as much as scholarly debate. And the book is a friend to both maximalists and minimalists, since its doesn’t address what really happened or who really existed, only how the ancients would have understood the bible in its final form. While Esler underscores the alien culture of the Israelites to the extent that their world seems unbridgable with ours, he is able to link the Old Testament stories to archetypal patterns found in myths and folktales across the world. They storm with new life as the cultural cues are filled in: vicious relationships between co-wives (Hannah and Peninnah), madness stemming from anxiety disorders (Saul), social vs. mafia-type banditry (David), the devastating power of rape (Amnon and Tamar), honorable lies and deceptions (Judith), and the way God vindicates those who are lowly and despised (David and Judith). More than any book I know, Sex, Wives, and Warriors is able to lay bare the disturbing world of the bible without apology, and yet make us feel deeply connected to it whether we’re religious or not.

2. Galatians and Conflict and Identity in Romans, Philip Esler. The apostle’s two famous letters never got a decent context until Sanders, and even after him, the revving up of the New Perspective made new monsters. The introspective Lutheran Paul was supplanted by an anti-apartheidist Paul, and nationalism became as intrusive as legalism. Esler pretty much keeps Paul where Sanders had him before scholars like Dunn and Wright tried “improving” on him in misguided ways. Against Dunn, Paul wasn’t opposed merely to works as boundary markers or covenant badges; he believed that the very best the law could provide, love of one’s neighbor, was now available by an entirely different route (the spirit), and as such the fulfilment of the law meant that its moral demands were completely obsolete. Against Wright, there was no sense for Paul that Christ was the “goal” or “climax” of anything to do with the law and covenant; he was its replacement and termination. The figure of Abraham is radically reinterpreted to prove this: since Abraham’s seed are those who are righteous by the faith he had prior to circumcision, and since no one (except Abraham himself) fit this category until the possibility arose of faith in Christ, the centuries between Moses and Christ were a period of unrelieved gloom, where the “promise” was de futuro only. The Gentile issue, to be sure, is what triggered Paul’s attack on the law (not introspective despair: Saul the Pharisee had lived by the law with no difficulty), but that attack had demolition in mind, not just knocking down a few walls to accommodate both parties. The Paul of Galatians is an outright supersessionist favoring Gentiles and denying value to Jewish identity, while the apostle of Romans revises his strategy, insisting that in Christ there is Jew and Greek after all, and putting both ethnic groups on the same salvific playing field in unique ways — and even allowing that Israel is superior in an important way. A formula like Gal 3:27-28 was doomed to fail in the ancient Mediterranean; attempts to eliminate distinctions in honor-shame societies only encouraged groups to re-assert their identities in aggressive ways. That’s why, in the end, there is Jew and Greek in Christ, and Romans the winning letter.

3. “A Dysfunctional Family and its Neighbors”, Richard Rohrbaugh. This article is from a group of otherwise mediocre essays, but worth a book itself, and overturns everything we think we know about Jesus’ famous parable. It isn’t about a prodigal son, but a beleaguered father with two equally lousy sons. Nor is it a repentance story: the younger son comes home because he has no choice, is starving, and a classic case of naive peasants who migrate to cities and blow all their money. The older son is no help at all, cooking up false accusations against his brother (that he spent money on harlots) and heaping insults on his father. And the father acts as one feebleminded from start to finish, not only by allowing his younger son to declare him dead and take his share of the inheritance (which is village as much as family property), but by actually accepting him back into the community. Embracing and kissing him isn’t an exemplary sign of compassion, but a public sign of protection against village hostility, as is the follow-up party to appease the entire village. Jesus thus affirms reponsibility to both kin and village, but in a bizarre way, with a father who counters shamelessness (disloyalty from both sons) with shamelessness (foolishness) of his own. By rights, he should have beat the daylights out of the younger son and given the elder a tongue-lashing. Every paragraph of Rohrbaugh’s article is packed with amazing cultural insight, and it’s as exciting to read as a modern short story.

4. Jesus was not a Jew or an Egalitarian, Jack Elliott. The two separate essays are actually called, “Jesus the Israelite Was Neither a ‘Jew’ Nor a ‘Christian'” and “Jesus Was Not an Egalitarian”, and they tie at fourth place as wonderful examples of negative scholarship. It’s a lot easier to say what Jesus wasn’t than what he was, and Elliott is at his best demolishing what people think he was. That the messiah wasn’t Jewish might seem an outrageous claim, but Jesus is never in fact called Ἰουδαῖος in the New Testament, save on three occasions, and only by outsiders. He identifies himself as an Israelite, just as he and his associates are identified by insiders as Israelites (or Galileans, or Nazarenes). The term Ἰουδαῖος should in any case be translated as “Judean”, not “Jew”, and was understood in either a narrow regional (southern) sense or broader ethnic sense (to include Galileans and Pereans), the broader use particularly by outsiders. As for egalitarian fantasies, the idea of social equality between human beings originated with the 18th-century Enlightenment and was first put into (very rough) practice with the American and French revolutions. Jesus wasn’t Enlightened. He was a messianic boss who chose twelve male disciples as his closest confidants. That he provided for the weak and vulnerable, and promised a reversal of fortune in the kingdom of God, doesn’t make him egalitarian; nor did his reciprocity in common table-fellowship promote a message of equality. The wisdom of the first essay has yet to catch on: even though I fully agree with Elliott that “Jew” is a mistranslation in the bible, I still use it to speak the common academic language.

5. Social Science Commentaries on the Gospels, Bruce Malina & Richard Rohrbaugh. These commentaries cover all the subtleties of biblical culture which tend to go over our heads when we read the bible. Perhaps the most important lesson is that in Jesus’ world, honorable men didn’t defend themselves or answer questions directly when challenged, because that would only concede ground to their opponents. They counterattacked with insults, counterquestions, or clever evasions. So when temple authorities confront Jesus and demand to know by what authority he makes prophetic demonstrations in the temple, Jesus responds with a counterquestion and then ends up insulting them by refusing to reveal anything at all. Or when Herodians and Pharisees try snaring him by getting him to admit having revolutionary sentiments about paying taxes, Jesus deflects their question by having them produce a coin for him, and then, holding it up for all to see, he shames them with a nasty counterquestion and tricks them into identifying themselves as idolaters before concluding with a cryptic remark (which could just as well mean, “Give Caesar nothing and God everything”). Another important lesson concerns identity, which was provided by one’s peers, not by oneself. So when Jesus asks Peter, “Who do you say I am?”, and Peter replies, “You are the messiah”, most of us think that Jesus knows who he is and is simply testing his disciples to see if they know. But Jesus is genuinely trying to find out his public status, and his followers are literally giving him his messianic identity. Only when public support has grown substantially will he finally be comfortable identifying himself as the messiah (at the end, in Mk. 14:61-62). To begin with, he is terrified of the title, and thus “sternly orders Peter not to tell anyone about it” (Mk. 8:30). The commentary on John follows the same approach as the synoptics, and shows that the Christian community of this gospel was an alternative society consisting of exiles, rebels, or ostracized deviants. As such, it had developed its own “anti-language”, or resistance language used to maintain its sectarian religious reality opposed to “this world”, the members of which, of course (especially the Judeans) lay outside the scope of redemption and were beyond the pale. Basically, Malina and Rohrbaugh have described all the important behavioral cues and cultural scripts behind the four gospels — how ancient gossip networks functioned, why all rich people were considered thieves, the nature of patron-client relationships, and a lot more.

6. Parables as Subversive Speech, William Herzog. Like Esler’s Old Testament book, this one is a blazing march through some tough stories. Herzog is famous for quipping that Jesus’ parables weren’t “earthly stories with heavenly meanings”, but “earthy stories with heavy meanings”, which is to say they only hinted about the coming kingdom of God by spotlighting the gory details of the here and now. The key is to resist equating masters and landowners with God (as the gospel writers sometimes do), since these figures are often the villains. When a servant buries money as commended by Jewish law, instead of participating in rapacious investment schemes, he’s the hero of the story. When a messianic king forgives an astonomical debt but then turns ruthless, he’s not a divine cipher of limitless forgiveness (for he plainly doesn’t believe in that); he’s a grim example of messianic pretenders who promise sabbaticals and jubilees: this is what they’ll become if they win the crown. When a steward, caught between an elitist rock and a peasant hard place, cuts into his master’s wealth for the debtors’ benefit, the master eats crow and commends his strategy, since his short-term loss will be offset by a long-term gain on account of his new reputation as a peasant benefactor; the steward hasn’t really cheated the master, only put new cards in his hands. While I have reservations about Herzog’s minimizing the apocalyptic edge to at least some of Jesus’ parables, and while I would maintain that some parables talked directly about the kingdom of God, for the most part this book is right on track about the way honorable peasants would have identified with these tales.

7. Honor Among Christians, David Watson. “Secrecy is nothing more than our own bewilderment projected into the Markan text,” once wrote a scholar, and Watson finally puts the specter of Wrede to rest. With an acumen that makes the rest of academia look almost incompetent, Watson shows that the “secrecy” passages in Mark wouldn’t have been understood as such by the ancients. In silencing those he healed, Jesus wasn’t trying to keep his identity or healing ability secret (as if that would be possible in a world of rampant gossip networks), but rather to resist achieved honor. In patron-client cultures, recipients of benefaction are expected to repay their benefactor through public praise, and it’s this kind of honor which Jesus resists. In silencing demons, likewise, Jesus is resisting ascribed honor, since a demon calling him “the Holy One of God” would be issuing a positive challenge and staking a claim on him; Jesus refuses to become indebted to demons and drawn into the laws of reciprocation. While the Markan Jesus doesn’t do away with the honor-shame system altogether (no one in antiquity could do that an survive), he does offer a new vision in its place, by claiming that the persecuted and suffering will be honored, and the great and powerful will be shamed. Watson also puts to bed the so-called inconsistency between the “secrecy” and “publicity” passages in Mark — properly speaking, the passages where Jesus resists honor, and those where he allows it or is indifferent to it — which are no more inconsistent than passages from The Life of Aesop, which upend the conventions of ancient slavery while upholding them too. Basically, Mark portrays Jesus as authoritative and deserving of honor even as he reshapes the way that honor was coventionally assigned. So the secret’s out: there never was a messianic secret, whether from Jesus’ life or pre-Markan traditions.

8. Reconceptualizing Conversion, Zeba Crook. If the messianic secret was the gospel puzzle of the 20th century, conversion has been the hard concept in Paul, and the key to it is benefaction (“what’s in it for me?”) as opposed to introspective soul-searching. People in antiquity converted or chose gods for the same reason they chose patrons, based on the benefits they stood to gain. Crook delves into this “balance-sheet” psychology, which features an unexpected gracious call, at which point the client was expected to proseltyze and publicize his patron’s generosity in order to increase his honor. As Paul puts it, “Woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel!” He wasn’t trying to save souls as much as gain converts to increase Christ’s honor. Of particular interest is the way converts felt compelled to compare their inferior past to the superior present, to the credit of their patron; but in cases like Paul where the patron didn’t change (God = Christ), the client raised the stakes dramatically, by improving upon an already excellent past (Philip 3:4b-6) which in comparison to the present is actually worse than worthless (Philip 3:7-11). That’s why Paul says that his Jewish heritage is so awesome, but in comparison to Christ is shit. While some scholars prefer that Paul was “called” rather than “converted”, Crook points out the false dichotomy: by the time of Hellenistic Judaism it was possible to be called and thus converted. Paul was invoking the Greco-Roman example of the call of the divine patron-benefactor (“conversion”) and the call of the Hebrew prophets at the same time.

9. “Paul Did Not Teach ‘Stay in Slavery,'” S. Scott Bartchy. This recent essay reinforces arguments from the author’s older book which refutes the common mistranslation of κλῆσις in 1 Corinthians 7. That word means “calling” (or “invitation”, or “summons”), and was translated correctly for centuries until Martin Luther. The Latin Vulgate rightly supplied “vocatione”, and the King James and American Standard versions have “calling”. But most English bibles follow Luther’s crime, with “condition” (NRSV, New American Standard), “state” (RSV, New American), “station” (Goodspeed), or “situation” (NIV). Luther, of course, wanted to keep peasants in their place, and also assure the laity that they didn’t need to become monks or priests to please God. Bartchy returns us to Paul. He doesn’t argue that Paul was condemning slavery per se — there are no egalitarian fantasies here — for no one in antiquity could have imagined a functional world without slaves; nor was the apostle calling for social revolution. But he did encourage believers to remain in their newfound calling (not their present social condition), where being “in Christ” trumped other definers: women thus didn’t have to get married and have children, and slaves could and should pursue manumission oportunities. It’s amusing that while Jesus is fancied an egalitarian hero (see #4 on this list), Paul apparently needs to be seen as a demon who shut the door on all possible changes in the status quo. Both are equally wrong.

10. The Life of a Galilean Shaman, Pieter Craffert. Here’s the Context-Group take on the historical Jesus: a shaman who became spirit-possessed and ascended to heaven in order to heal and prophesy. Craffert shows that across cultures, shamans have assumed the multiple roles of prophets, healers, and sages, and their exalted roles owed to personal intimacy and encounters (as they understood them) with their deities, and were not a mark of egocentrism. He follows the Dale Allison trend of gleaning Jesus from recurring themes and patterns in the gospels rather than specific sayings and deeds hammered out by the classic criteria — as he puts it, Jesus is found not so much “underneath” the gospel traditions as “in” them. Rumor, gossip, and oral legends left us with an overall faithfulness if not actual accuracy. Also as from Allison, we get a terrific solution to the Son of Man puzzle: the title was a modest way of referring to the self in Jewish culture, but also a modest way of relaying a heavenly journey or encounter, and in some cases (like in the Book of Similitudes) a heavenly son of man figure seen in a vision turned out to be the visionary himself. This sits so close to Allison’s proposal that Jesus’ earthly and angelic identities were twin components which couldn’t be neatly separated, and that Jesus in fact thought he had a heavenly twin or doppelganger.

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Pop Quiz

According to the Bible, which one is FALSE?

A. Before Saul fell out of favor with God, he was seen as honorable by his people for being “among the prophets”.

B. David was a liar and a low-life who won his crown through ruthless warfare.

C. Amnon refusing to marry Tamar after raping her was more devastating than the rape itself.

D. Judith’s lies, seduction, and murder of Holofernes were all honorable and to the glory of Israel.

Leave your answer in the comments.

Sex, Wives, and Warriors: Reading Biblical Narrative with its Ancient Audience

Even with all its prescinding from source and form criticism, Sex, Wives, and Warriors is one of the most penetrating books on the Old Testament available, a compulsive page-turner, and strong reminder that in the 21st century dedicated scholars have the tools to really do right, and enable us to read stories as they were first heard. Esler’s approach is intercultural as much as historical, and it’s impossible not to be emotionally charged by the eight stories he takes us through. For some this will be an exhilarating experience, for others repulsive, but you’ll be a different person either way by the end. The real beauty to the book is that it’s a friend to both maximalists and minimalists of historiography, since it doesn’t care what actually happened or who actually existed, only in how an ancient Israelite audience would have heard these narratives by the time they were first put into the form we now have in the Old Testament.

The cover sets the tone right away with Allori’s famous portrait of Judith. Ever since my high-school reading of Dante’s Inferno I’ve had a thing for people who carry around human heads (especially when, like Bertran de Born in the Ninth Bolgia, they carry their own), and there’s something quite stirring about a Jewish woman brandishing the head of an Assyrian general she deviously manipulated before decapitating with his own sword. This is almost a metaphor for Esler’s strategy throughout the entire book, as he manoeuvres us into corners and severs our assumptions about what constitutes righteous biblical behavior. Judith, for her part, told no less than thirteen lies (Jud 10:12, 10:13, 11:7, 11:11, 11:12-15, 11:16, 11:17, 11:18, 11:19 (x3), 13:3), and was all the more honorable for it. This highlights the Mediterranean double standard which commends the tactical use of lying and deception against enemies like Holofernes. As Esler puts it:

“It is perfectly acceptable to rail against the lies and deceit of other people, even while you do exactly the same thing yourself. The point is to be the final winner, to promote the honor of oneself and one’s group by obtaining revenge.” (p 290)

Which is exactly what Judith does. Like David with his sling, Judith with her lies gets the enemy in a compromising position to finish him off and subsequently parade his head around in public. Esler notes the abundant parallels between David/Goliath and Judith/Holofernes — and the astounding blindness of scholars who ignore these in favor of more superficial comparisons with Jael, Elijah, and Moses. David’s insults are to Judith’s flatteries, and their vorpal swords ended up saving Israel against impossible odds. Even if the Goliath and Holofernes narratives are largely fictional (as I suspect they are), they became quickly believed with mighty theological payoff:

“Both Judith and David represent Israel as a whole in being small, inferior and frequently despised compared with surrounding nations, and often facing apparently insuperable odds, but nevertheless with God on their side, a God who comes to the aid of the weak and socially marginal and rescues them from dangerous predicaments.” (p 296)

David was a shepherd (a despised occupation in agrarian socieites, since they were roaming thieves who couldn’t be at home to protect their women) and Judith was a woman. Neither made for honorable heroes, yet that’s what the God of the Old Testament does with marginal people time and time again.

But if Esler’s social readings make admittedly powerful statements about God exalting the lowly and crushing their arrogant oppressors, they are not naively romantic. They are embedded with real-life tensions and even contradictions. In the case of David, oppressed peasants collected around him in his revolt against Saul, but that doesn’t mean he had a good relationship with peasants per se. Eric Hosbawm’s social-bandit theory is challenged rigorously by Esler, so that David’s banditry emerges less a Robin Hood protest movement and more a Sicilian mafia-like protection racket. This is seen in a text like I Sam 25:5-8, where David is not suggesting that his men protected Nabal’s shepherds from other thieves or raiders, but darkly stating that his men themselves held back from attacking the shepherds though they were completely in his power. “So reward us, or else,” being the clear threat.

The ruthless nature of David’s banditry is evident in other places, and Esler compares I Sam 27:9 (“David smote the land, and left neither man nor woman alive, but took away the sheep, the oxen, the asses, the camels, and the garments, and came back to Achish”) with an account from 1930s China when bandits had looted and burned the town of Kingsuchen, killing men, women, and children, and capturing others. They were reported to have engaged in atrocities that were off the scales. Esler compares:

“What David did was essentially identical to this, except that the Chinese bandits at least left some of the townsfolk alive so they could carry the loot. David was also attacking old enemies of Judah and the other Israelites but there was no current threat from these peoples [and he was even allied at this point with the pagan Achish to boot!]. The fact that David may have been settling old scores would not have mattered much to those he slaughtered, and his band clearly kept all the booty for themselves… The narrator appears to see no evil in David’s actions, probably because this was a culture where moral duties were owed to members of one’s ingroup, and the outgroups were fair game for insult and attack.” (p 250)

The irony is compounded when a few chapters later, the Amalekites are referred to as a “maurading band” (four times in I Sam 30), though this term is equally applicable to David’s own band, indeed even more so since he had killed every man and woman he captured while the Amalekites kiled no captives at all (I Sam 30:1-2).

There are, in other words, plain realities under the socially empowering theology of the Old Testament, that often sit at odds with it. David was pursuing a goal that would enable him to become king of Israel and benefit from the exact same oppressive system Saul enjoyed. “His trajectory is towards joining the elite, not challenging it on behalf of the non-elite.” (pp 255-56) It was a revolution for the kingship, not gang-preyings on the rich. Yes, he is portrayed as the exemplar of God raising the humble and lowly, but Yahweh’s election evidently has knifing irony: David ended up crushing the humble and the lowly as often as he vanquished evil giants.

The guy I most empathize with in the Samuel narratives is actually Saul, who at least has the excuse of madness to fall back on. Against critics who think he was manic-depressive, Esler suggests that Saul suffered from anxiety disorders featuring panic attacks. He draws on crosscultural studies which find such disorders linked to feelings of helplessness, not being in control, delusions of persecution, homicidal impulses, and, interestingly enough, belief in spirit possession. Even before he fell out of favor with God, Saul had been reveling in possession trances (I Sam 10:9-13). But when he disobeyed Samuel twice (I Sam 10:8, 13:13-14; I Sam 15:3,9-11) God abandoned him and sent an evil spirit into him instead (I Sam 16:14), causing relentless terror, and (as we are to understand it) the cause of his madness. Esler notes that when the young David makes his first appearance and provides soothing therapy for Saul with his lyre, this bears remarkable similarities to relaxation treatments prescribed by modern behavioral clinicians.

An anxiety disorder admittedly makes good sense of I Sam 18-30 which is dominated by a repeated cycle of Saul eyeballing David with envy, doing his damnest to kill him, then bewilderingly making amends and “becoming friends” again for brief periods before returning to homicidal mania:

“Saul’s first attack on David, at I Sam 18:10-11, which signals the beginning of the king’s paranoid hostility toward him, correlates quite closely with [a documented Taiwanese case] where delusions of persecution and outbreaks of hostility were associated with an anxiety condition… Saul’s is triggered by the extreme stress of the day before when publicly dishonored by the women’s unfavorable comparison of him with David. The damage sustained to his honor induces the psychosocial stress pushing an already chronic anxiety condition into a dangerously acute phase. Thereafter, although there are times when Saul is able to attend to the voice of reason of those around him or to relent of his hostility in the face of extraordinary displays of devotion to David, in general his anxiety condition is characterized by a paranoid and indeed homicidal attitude toward his erstwhile favorite.” (pp 176-77)

Saul’s monstrous actions — like his slaughter of the priests of Nob, and every living thing in the town, in revenge for harboring David (I Sam 22:18-19) — appalling by even honor-shame standards, become understandable if not excusable on this view. Esler is to be commended for correcting the nonsense touted in academia that modern psychiatric explanations are out of bounds since they are “anachronistic” to the biblical writers’ theological worldview. A truly intercultural approach does justice to both emic and etic perspectives (see pp 166-167); that we empathize with the ancients’ spiritual explanations doesn’t mean we necessarily endorse them.

If Saul, David, and Judith are the “warriors” of this book, then Bathsheba and Tamar serve up the “sex” — or more accurately, their violators do. Esler’s readings of the narratives in II Sam 10-13 are so suspenseful that one almost stands in awe over how much dread and devastation can come out of the bedroom. (Maybe soap operas have a weird biblical basis.) In the case of Bathsheba, we again find God’s “humbly anointed” in the unflattering spotlight. David’s violation of another man’s wife occurs because he is slothfully loitering in Jerusalem instead of avenging his honor against the Ammonites. The Ammonites had shamed him outrageously by humiliating his ambassadors — spurning their courtesies, shaving half their beards, and exposing their buttocks. David’s astounding, dishonorable failure to take the field against Ammon (by sending Joab in his place) is seen by the narrator of II Sam 10-12 to be the direct cause of his liaison with Bathsheba. “Put bluntly,” says Esler, “if he had done the right thing and led his own men to war, he would have never got into the trouble he did.” (p 314)

David’s crime is explained as the deliberate scorning of the generosity of his divine patron (God) by taking Bathsheba. After all, he already has an abundance of wives; taking Uriah’s single wife amounts to the same thing as a rich man feeding a guest by stealing a poor man’s single lamb, as famously critiqued by the prophet Nathan (II Sam 12:1-7). Esler rightly notes that when commentators critique David’s adultery with Bathsheba based on this or that code of the Torah, they are only correct in a technical sense; they miss the stronger point that

“Not only had David breached his obligations to his patron but he had murdered a man and stolen his wife. David’s wrong is indeed far worse than that of the rich man in the parable who did not, at least, have the poor man murdered to conceal the theft of his lamb. Thus the text focuses on the devastation David has wrought both in his personal relationship with God and in its effect on Uriah rather than on the infringement of any specific provision of Israelite law.” (pp 317-18)

And as a result of his gross immorality, God’s wrath proceeds to steamroll over David’s entire family. II Sam 10-12 becomes almost a mild preface to the horrific sequel in chapter 13, which deals death to David’s son Amnon. This involves, of course, the rape of Tamar, which is Esler’s final chapter. It’s a fitting end to the book, because it arguably captures the alien culture of the bible best of all the eight stories, dealing as it does with women who are blamed and shamed for being violated in the worst way.

In the famous account, David’s daughter is raped by her half-brother Amnon, but not, as some critics claim, as a hostile takeover bid against Absalom as contender for the crown. The argument (put forth by Victor Matthews and Don Benjamin) is that when a man representing one household rapes a woman from another, the rapist’s household lays claim on the resources of the woman’s household. While this is a plausible suggestion, it receives no textual support in the case at hand. First of all, as Esler demonstrates, Tamar is not part of Absalom’s household; she is part of David’s, residing at the royal palace. But second, a political motive never remotely surfaces in the story. Amnon is driven by sadistic urges purely to gratify himself and ruin Tamar’s honor and innocence. He is ill and frustrated at not being able to do anything “to” Tamar (II Sam 13:2); he is tormented because of her virginity. That’s all.

For a biblical narrative, the rape is graphic, like a vicious Last House on the Left crossed with an emotionally charged General Hospital. Tamar actively resists, struggles, and protests (II Sam 13:12-14). And when Amnon is through with her, he discards her and contemptuously tells her to get lost (II Sam 13:15). This, as Esler knows, is worse than the rape itself: “Brother, this evil in sending me away is greater than what you just did to me” (II Sam 13:16). She is begging Amnon to marry her, since that’s now her only hope of salvation:

“The only way a man could do justice to a woman whom he had raped was to marry her himself, because no one else (or no one respectable) would. Tamar’s appeal to Amnon was really her last chance to prevent the destruction of her life.” (p 347)

Reminding us then that in honor-shame cultures the closest bonds are between brothers and sisters (not husbands and wives), Esler goes on to note that Tamar does the only the thing possible, moving in with her (full) brother Absalom who exacts murderous revenge on Amnon. Of course, in many honor-shame cultures Absalom would be honor-bound to kill her as much as Amnon, but in ancient Israel, a raped woman didn’t necessarily need to die (witness also Dinah in Gen 34). But in effect she dies — a social death, says Esler, since virtually no one will want to marry such a defiled woman. Absalom may have avenged the family honor, but Tamar herself is left devastated. In the context of the narrative, she is collateral damage for the punishment God lands on David’s house for the Bathsheba affair, posing critical questions to the audience about kings and princes devoted to satisfying their mean sexual urges.

I’ve reviewed six of the eight stories covered by Esler, from the “warriors” and “sex” sections — the battlefield and the bedroom, as it were. The two stories from the “wives” section (at the beginning of the book) I’ll only mention as a tease: they involve the stigmas attached to women who are unable to bear children, whether by circumstance (Tamar in Gen 38) or barrenness (Hannah in I Sam 1-2). Esler cranks these narratives up again with the right cultural cues, and I found his expose of the vicious relationships between co-wives in polygynous cultures particularly helpful in Hannah’s story.

Sex, Wives, and Warriors is, then, a tour-de-force of the Samuel narratives (and Judith) and a rare breed in biblical scholarship. Only Richard Rohrbaugh’s reading of The Prodigal Son delivers the same kind of jarring social analysis that puts you on alien soil not knowing quite who to like and despise. I’m a bit surprised by the omission of the David and Jonathan controversy, considering that Esler leaves hardly a stone unturned. Is it because he considers the idea that these men were homoerotically involved without foundation and thus not worth even mentioning? Or that he just doesn’t know what to make of it? He practically sets himself up for the discussion in tying I Sam 17:1-18:5 to the literary landscape of “Rags to Riches” stories, noting how the conclusion (18:1-5) deviates, “taking the form not of matrimony, but the love of Jonathan” (p 212). But what kind of love? To this day, I’ve not seen a Context-Group scholar address the texts which speak of David’s love for Jonathan being “greater than the love of a woman” (II Sam 1:26), and Jonathan’s alleged sexual “delight” in David (I Sam 19:1) which supposedly recalls Shechem’s erotic delight in Dinah (Gen 34:19). For a book that deals precisely with honorable vs. shameful sex, this was a sorely missed opportunity on Esler’s part, whatever side of the debate he would fall on.

In some ways this is Esler’s best book, certainly his most riveting. Like him, I spend more time in the New Testament, but the Old offers a sharper lens onto the honor-shame world, by the sheer abundance of stories with rural settings. Most of the New Testament documents were written for urban communities (so Esler notes on p 49), in a shame-based milieu, to be sure, but with more civilized polish. Jesus’ parables are notable exceptions (Esler compares his book to the work done on the parables by William Herzog in addition to Rohrbaugh; pp 24-25), and like the messiah’s folk tales, the Samuel texts draw us into places where redemption seems out of reach for all the promising theology.

Quote for the Day: On "Playing Safe" with Biblical Metaphors

“There are many today who would prefer to dispense altogether with the language of sacrifice and of warfare, the first because of squeamishness and unfamiliarity, the second because it is all too familiar and demonstrably too easy to take with a literlness that negates its true intention. But religion and morality are not best served by those who play safe, particularly when playing safe entails the disregard of powerful human impulses which by a bold use of metaphor may be tamed and harnessed.” (George Caird, The Language and Imagery of the Bible, p 18)